A Public Health Approach to Understanding and Preventing Firearm Violence

By Jared Mondschein, Ph.D.

Firearm homicide rates are 25x higher in the United States than in other high-income nations. Over 30% of mass shootings occur in the United States. These statistics flaunt an unacceptable truth: the United States plays host to too many acts of firearm-related violence. The U.S. is home to the best scientists in the world and they should be unleashed to improve our understanding of the root causes of firearm violence and the impact of the various policy options available to lawmakers. The United States Government should fund a comprehensive research agenda on the causes and consequences of gun violence that would enable evidence-based debates on public policy options.

Following the recent spate of firearm attacks in the United States, influential public figures often espouse positions hinged on pre-conceived beliefs and political values. This behavior marks the continuation of an ongoing pattern in which a violent event captures national attention for a short period of time, draws hyperbolic, inflammatory comments from all sides of the political spectrum, and is then pushed to the recesses of the national consciousness.

Policy is needed to curb gun violence. And decision makers must be provided data in order to create sensible policy. They must be able to “see through the weeds” and ignore superfluous rhetoric devoid of evidence. Unfortunately, this evidence does not exist today. It has not been gathered and the problem has not been studied.

In response to the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, then-President Obama issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that might prevent it, and strategies to minimize its public health burden. In response, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) worked with the National Research Council to develop a research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence. The ensuing CDC report called for research efforts that aimed to enhance our understanding of firearm violence, including the factors that influence the probability of firearm violence, the impact of behavioral interventions and gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and the media.

The CDC has not received sufficient funding to carry out peer-reviewed scientific studies on the topics described above. In 2018, House appropriators rejected a proposal to earmark $10 million for the Centers for Disease Control to sponsor competitive grants supporting gun violence research (a figure that tallies no more than 0.09% of the FY2018 CDC budget). In general, federal agencies are significantly discouraged from funding research investigating the causes and possible solutions of gun violence.

The United States Government should fund a comprehensive research agenda on the causes and consequences of gun violence.This research program should take an interdisciplinary approach that examines the impact of individual characteristics, family history, the local community, firearm availability, and national or international influences. The program should utilize a public health approach that involves three elements: (1) a focus on prevention (2) a focus on scientific methodology to identify risk and patterns, and (3) a collaboration between mental health experts, epidemiologists, sociologists, and behavioral scientists, among other experts.

It is crucial that the United States solve the problem of gun violence. The evidence that emerges from the study of gun violence causes and consequences must be used directly in effective policymaking.

Dr. Jared Mondschein is a Research Associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, where he works with government agencies to provide non-partisan evidence-based policy recommendations on a range of science and technology policy issues. He has expertise in renewable energy, innovation, and microelectronics.